St.Lucia's Derek Walcott was one of the world's greatest poets

St.Lucia's Derek Walcott was one of the world's greatest poets

March 23, 2017

A member of the distinguished group of four Caribbean Nobel Laureates has passed away.

Playwright and poet Derek Walcott died in his native St. Lucia on March 17 after a prolonged illness. He was 87.

Dr. George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate, considers Walcott to be the greatest poet of the 20th and 21st centuries.

He said Walcott had immeasurable influence on writers of his generation, especially those exploring decolonization.

“Derek Walcott, in my opinion, was the first non-British-born poet of English to remake the English Language in his own tongue in a decolonized fashion,” Clarke said. “In other words, he took the former imperialist and oppressive language that was forced upon Black, Brown, Yellow and Red folks from all over the planet through the British Empire and used that language better than the imperialist and the oppressors themselves were able to…He was very much an Aristotelian poet. He wrote lyric poetry, comic and tragic plays and, as Aristotle, argued that the greatest poets have to write epic poetry which he did with ‘Omeros’. He was a symbol for all decolonizing writers of English and other languages. He blazed the trail for all of us.”

The Derek Walcott Papers are housed at the University of Toronto’s (U of T) Thomas Fisher Rare Book library.

Ink drawings for his musical play, 'Steel'.( Courtesy of Fisher Library)

Ink drawings for his musical play, 'Steel'.( Courtesy of Fisher Library)

The collection includes drafts of most of his published work with holograph notes, revisions, rough and final drafts, journals and notebooks. There is also an extraordinarily rich array of water colours and pen and ink drawings – many in the form of what are sometimes in the theatre world called ‘story boards’ – intimately related to his poems, plays and film scripts.

The Walcott papers relate to the poetic, theatrical and prose writing from the early 1980s to present. The vast and rich collection, which is the university’s first of a Nobel Laureate in literature, attracts researchers from all over the world as well as U of T students and faculty who are very much inspired by his exceptional work in so many forms.

Researchers come from a wide range of disciplines, including Caribbean Studies, Comparative Literature, Drama, English, Equity Studies, History and Poetry.

Clarke, the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Studies at the U of T and former parliamentary assistant to retired politician and university professor Dr. Howard McCurdy, said having Walcott’s archives at the university is ‘a real feather in its cap’.

“He could have gone to Oxford or Yale, but he chose U of T,” he added. “That’s partly because of the long-standing historical connections culturally, economically and politically between Canada and the Caribbean. There’s also the fact that there is a sizeable Canadian-Caribbean community in the Greater Toronto Area, many of whom are poets and writers. And the fact that Canada doesn’t have as much of an imperialist history as Britain or America and certainly haven’t been as obviously aggressive.”

U of T associate professor Dr. Alissa Trotz said St. Lucia, the Caribbean and the wider world have lost a literary soul.

“Derek was part of an incredible generation of cultural producers – painters, poets, writers and theatre practitioners and he was all of those things rolled up into one -- from the Caribbean who helped to reveal to us what we all instinctively know which is the amazing beauty and possibility of landscapes in the region that have withstood incredible violence, but yet endured,” said Trotz who heads the undergraduate Caribbean studies program at New College.

The Caribbean Studies program at the U of T is forever indebted to him because his collection is at that library as a resource for the community, colleagues and students.”

Neil ten Kortenaar, professor of comparative literature at the U of T Scarborough campus, said Walcott was one of the most important poets in English in the second half of the 20th century.

“In his lyric poetry, he made his own experience significant for all readers of poetry,” he pointed out. “In the process, he made the Caribbean into an imaginative centre for the world. He wrote about Caribbean history as world history, its history of conquest and colonization. Great migrations of people and slavery are subjects that became immensely important as the British Empire broke up in the decades after the Second World War.”

University of the West Indies (UWI) vice-chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles said Walcott was one of the finest intellects of the 20th century and a literary phenomenon from the Lesser Antilles.

“His entire literary enterprise reflected an extraordinary grasp of world history, Western capitalism and African enslavement, native genocide, the colonisation of Asia and how these historical forces led to the creation of a unique Caribbean culture that is, in every sense, the first integrated world culture of modernity,” Beckles said. “His discourse of Caribbeanness took the literary world on a journey from Timbuktu to Athens, from Columbus' Atlantic voyages and the criminality of its intent and orientation to the magnificence of Caribbean enlightenment revolutions that served to civilise Western modernity—the rise of Toussaint L'Overture's Haiti and Fidel Castro's Cuba.  

“A poet and intellectual without conceptual borders in a world that insists upon them, Sir Derek lived his life as he imagined his destiny determined. At home in the Caribbean islands with his bloodlines that flowed in his veins from worlds beyond, he was a mind of universal sensitivity, an advocate of humanity before hubris, of sophisticated reasoning and living. The Caribbean world, and its University of the West Indies that stimulated and empowered him, join with the world of words and communities of creative consciousness in celebrating this juggernaut whose journey has enlightened us all. The motto of his beloved alma mater, The University of the West Indies, says it best: Oriens Ex Occidente Lux (a light rising from the West). This, indeed, was our Sir Derek”.  

UWI pro vice-chancellor Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie noted that Walcott lived a long and productive life as a poet, playwright, painter and essayist.

“He loved St. Lucia, he was happy in Trinidad and he fully appreciated the power of its diversity,” said Tewarie. “He was thoroughly Caribbean in sense and sensibility and he drew on European tradition and was honest enough to express his feelings of battles which raged in his soul and spirit. A creative life has expired leaving behind a body of work that’s a Caribbean-born world treasure.”

Justice Greg Regis, who was born and raised in St. Lucia, said Walcott was an unapologetic writer whose poems and plays captured the soul of Caribbean life.

“The imagery of his poems is compelling,” he said. “I regularly re-read one of his early poems, ‘Return to D’Ennery; Rain’, because it always took me back to my birth village, Dennery. Images of what the village was when I was a child leap off the pages.

“In recent years, Derek’s stature in St. Lucia grew in what many described as unexpected directions. He became a kind of oracle. Whenever a tough national issue was being debated, particularly one which touched on the country’s identity, heritage and future, the population would ask, ‘What does Derek think?’ He was a genuine treasure and I am privileged to have known him.”

Watercolour painting by Walcott for his musical, 'O Babylon'. (Courtesy of Fisher Library)

Watercolour painting by Walcott for his musical, 'O Babylon'. (Courtesy of Fisher Library)

Itah Sadu, the co-owner of A Different Booklist which promotes literature from across the African Diaspora and is a community meeting place, was in Walcott’s company on a few occasions when he visited Toronto.

“He was engaging and you felt you were in the company of Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Dr. Eric Williams and Ivan Van Sertima,” she said. “He was just so many things and I guess that was how his brilliance was translated. This was a man of great letters with a fluidity of language who painted pictures with words…You could be playful with him, yet at the same time you knew he didn’t suffer fools.”

Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.

“I can recall, like most Saint Lucians, scrambling to find a television or radio to listen to his address and the very vivid images he painted in words as he addressed his audience,” said Trinidadian-based environmental management & sustainable development consultant David Simmons who has undergraduate and Master’s degrees in international relations from the University of Windsor and Dalhousie University respectively. “We all know of his literary genius, and his memories are indelibly inscribed on the pages of numerous texts and on the hearts and minds of people around the world. 

“However, while he is no doubt remembered for his literary brilliance, very few outside of Saint Lucia will know that his love for nature -- the banana leaves, the green valleys, the surrounding sea, the environment and Caribbean culture and life in general -- was not just a canvas against which he crafted some inspired poetic verses. He was a strong advocate for environmental protection and a development ethos which was centred around people.”

Professor emeritus Dr. Frank Birbalsingh said Walcott was the first important poet to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean.

“He was able to write quality poetry that was recognized internationally,” Birbalsingh, who taught post-colonial literature at York University for 33 years, said. “He very much had that in mind when he started because he realized we in the Caribbean were unknown in terms of literature and anybody from that region who wanted to write had the job to make his writing accessible to the bigger world.”

Walcott, who just missed out on an Oxford scholarship because he was weak in math, studied French, Latin and Spanish at the University College of the West Indies and taught in St. Lucia, Grenada and Jamaica before settling in Trinidad & Tobago in 1953 where he continued to write poetry and plays.

He said he knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a poet.

“Since I knew what I wanted to do and the direction in which I wanted to go, I used to imitate some of the best in the business,” he once said. “My father (Warwick Walcott was the offspring of a White plantation owner from Barbados) wrote satirical verse and was a painter. I was dedicated to continuing in his footsteps after he died very early at 31 of an ear infection.”

When he was 18 years old, Walcott’s mother gave him $200, which was a huge amount at the time, to self-publish his first collection of poems.

The founder of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University where he taught literature and creative writing was appointed Professor of Poetry at the University of Essex and the first distinguished scholar in residence at the University of Alberta in 2009.

Walcott enjoyed a close relationship with his twin brother Roderick who died in Toronto in March 2000 after a prolonged illness. Roderick studied theatre arts at York University and was the recipient of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1976 for outstanding theatrical work in St. Lucia.

In 2010, Walcott visited Africa for the first time at the invitation of Wole Soyinka who in 1986 became the first Nigerian to win a Nobel Prize and the first Black to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Walcott was in Africa to attend the Food, Security and Poverty Alleviation conference in Lagos, Nigeria.

“It is no partisan or excess zeal that prompts me, at every opportunity, to claim Derek Walcott as one of the greatest poets, in any language or culture, of the twentieth century,” Soyinka said. “Derek had a great feel for nature and history, within whose matrix he so lyrically situated and wove his island tapestry. A mordant wit, even sometimes prankster, Derek was unpretentiously an aristocrat of letters. His muse was the sea, but he celebrated his continent of ancestry, Africa, as his rightful bequest without sentiment and without blindness.

“The sadness of parochial literacy on this vast continent comes from the presumption that affinity between writers and their works must be found and expressed in the narrowness of geographic neighbourliness. Those who wish to speak knowledgeably of the reaches of African Literature should learn to look beyond saline waters and dialogue with the spirit of Derek Walcott. He is alive, remains alive, and keeps the universal lure of literature alive.”

Walcott wrote 24 poetry collections, the last being ‘The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013’, which was published three years ago.

St. Lucia, which has a population of about 183,000, has produced two of the region’s four Nobel Laureates. Late economist Sir Arthur Lewis who was born on the same day as Walcott – January 23 – won the prestigious prize in 1979.

“When everyone speaks about excellence and describes Saint Lucia with any form of superlative, clearly the two names that stand tall in Saint Lucia’s history are that of Sir Arthur Lewis and Sir Derek Walcott,” said St. Lucia’s Prime Minister Allen Chastanet. “It has become customary for us to see Sir Derek and know that he was there all the time. He made himself so available and participated in so many national events here in Saint Lucia and continued to fly the flag very high.”

Walcott was accorded a state funeral.

The other Caribbean Nobel Laureates are Guadeloupe-born Saint-John Perse who died in 1975 and Trinidadian V.S Naipaul who is 84.


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